A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

Ron Bearden with the first buck taken with this his homemade air gun. "That was my first kill with this rifle," said Ronald Bearden, pointing out to the little grove of fruit trees behind his house. One old peach tree was scarred and battered and dead, the bark hammered off. Bullets and fragments of lead were embedded in the wood. "I didn't have the accuracy part worked out yet, and that tree was a casualty of the process." So was the metal-sided barn far behind the little orchard. "I could tell from the clang how many feet-per-second I was getting," Bearden said. "And then one day I kept hearing that double-clang, and realized she was going all the way through." That might have been the day Bearden also realized that he was closing in on his goal of hunting big game with the prototype air rifle he'd been building in his shop in northern Alabama.Field & Stream Online Editors
A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

An early blueprint Bearden is an ex-Marine, an engineer by trade, and an inventor by nature. One of the things that has always fascinated him is tinkering with guns, especially oddball calibers like the .500 Alaskan. And air guns, the older and simpler the better. "I've been a student of air guns all my life, read everything I could find, studied the air gun that went on the expedition with Lewis and Clark. My goal was to make a very lethal rifle for deer hunting, and make it in a very simple way. I wanted a utilitarian design, not much different than what they were using (for the first airguns) in the 1600s. The same basic principles, matched with better metal, better steel, better material all around."Field & Stream Online Editors
A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

Bearden's gun, including, from top to bottom: ram rod, .32 caliber barrel, .22 caliber barrel, gun and scope with .50 caliber barrel, compressed air cannister ('pony bottle') The rifle is built on the chassis of an old Italian pump shotgun, completely gutted. "I don't shotgun-hunt at all," Bearden said, "and I had taken the barrel off of this gun years before to use for some other project, so it was natural to use the chassis for this." A three-stage pump charges the rifle, forcing 3700 psi into a pony bottle in about a hundred strokes. Bearden then uses the pony bottle to recharge the rifle's main cylinder after each shot. One pony bottle can be used to recharge the rifle, to 1150 psi (the pressure at which the gun shoots most accurately), about 20 times. The rifle has three interchangeable barrels, a .32, the .50, and a .22. Bearden uses the large barrel for hunting and casts his own 200-grain, .50-caliber bullets out of a lead and solder mixture. With the .50-caliber barrel, the whole rig, bottle and all, weighs about ten pounds. Bearden believes he could make it much lighter. "I used some very hard metal to make sure it would take the psi I was using here," he said. "If I did it over, I could use other, lighter materials for some of that."Field & Stream Online Editors
A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

As a hunting weapon, the rifle proved to be exactly as lethal as its inventor intended. To make it a legal muzzleloader, Bearden placed a block in the breech of the rifle, so it can only be loaded from the muzzle. "I checked the regulations for muzzleloaders, and there is nothing in there that said the bullet had to be propelled by black powder or anything else. So far, I haven't heard anything different." (A call to Alabama game wardens confirmed that the rifle is legal in that state). "The first time I ever took it out, third day of doe season, I fired one shot, and the doe just fell over, went straight down to the ground. That was with these 200-grain bullets. Later in the season, I got a shot at a nice buck (above photo), at about 85 yards, with another one-shot kill." "I'm hoping that this is something that my grandson can learn to hunt with," Bearden said. "And I wanted to make it pretty enough that if nobody wants to hunt with it, it will look good as a wall hanger, a curiosity."Field & Stream Online Editors
A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

A Homemade, Air-Powered Muzzleloader For Big Game

Author Hal Herring takes his first shot with Bearden's rifle After showing me how it worked, Ron could see how very badly I wanted to shoot his invention, so we went out into his backyard and set up. We pumped up the pony cylinder, then used it to charge the rifle (which made a sharp noise like a popping champagne cork). Then Bearden loaded the rifle, setting the bullet with a ramrod made from an aluminum hunting arrow with a .50-caliber, copper-jacketed bullet soldered on to the end as a stop. With the tiny pressure gauge on the rifle reading 1100 psi, I laid the barrel across the rifle rest. The target was a coffee can sitting in an old garden cart. The cart was in front of a berm of earth -- these days Bearden doesn't shoot at the barn. The sight is a tang sight, stripped from a Swedish Mauser ("Don't tell 'em that, Bearden told me. "The Mauser fans will hate me.") I was a little bit afraid of the rifle -- no matter how beautiful, it is homemade, pushing enough pressure to blow my head off -- and my first shot showed it, casting wide of the coffee can. The report sounded about like that made by a .22 short. There was zero recoil, which was great, but took some getting used to. We recharged the rifle with the pony bottle and I settled in again. This time, and the time after that, the bullet struck the coffee can hard, the ring of the lead on metal almost simultaneous with the break of the remarkably clean trigger. The bullets made impressive holes in the can -- my third shot punched through so hard that the can barely moved, testament to the bullet's very high velocity. "That was it," Bearden said, "that's about what I've been looking for."Field & Stream Online Editors